That’s just your interpretation
Is it possible to read the Bible and know what it's saying?
We’ve spoken quite often here at Two Ways News (and before that in ‘The Payneful Truth’ years) about how the gospel is a particular thing. You can express it using different words and in your own style, but it’s not infinitely malleable. It has a definite content that we can know from the New Testament, and which we can explain to other people.
The same is true with the Bible generally, as we saw recently in our conversation with Mark Thompson about Scripture. Scripture is truthful and clear, and with God’s Spirit opening our hearts and eyes, we can be confident that what we read in it is what God wants to communicate to us.
These days, both of these claims are controversial, and the common form of the pushback goes something like this: “How can you be so sure? Surely it’s a matter of interpretation. We all bring our own preconceived ideas and contexts to our reading, after all. And nobody seems to be able to agree about what the Bible says. So when you so confidently declare that an outline like Two Ways to Live is a true and good summary of the one true biblical gospel … well, isn’t that just your interpretation?”
I put this objection to Phillip to kick off a lively conversation about interpretation, the gospel and how to read the Bible.
TP: We say that we know what the one true gospel is from the Bible. How do we respond to the objection, “Well, surely that’s arrogant. Isn’t it really just your interpretation?”
PJ: No, it’s humility not arrogance, but I’ll explain why.
It's got to do with the shifting meaning of the word ‘interpretation’ to some extent. The word ‘interpret’ used to mean ‘to understand; to explain what a text actually means’. But in recent decades (especially through the arts of music and postmodern deconstruction) the word ‘interpretation’ has come to refer to not what the author meant or what the text means, but what I as the reader mean. I determine the text's meaning from my own viewpoint; so to interpret it gives me freedom to present it in a way that expresses my thinking, rather than expresses the author's thinking. Some have even said that the text has no meaning and that there is no authorial intent. The author's intention is beyond my knowledge, and so all reading is interpretation. But I'm afraid that's nonsense. When someone yells ‘fire’, people know what you mean.
It’s a modern problem—that everyone just has their own interpretation of texts—and we bring it with us to the Bible and think, “Well, there’s no fixed meaning; it really is whatever you make of it.”
But if the reader is the sovereign controller of the text, that is arrogance. However, if the reader is desperate to find out what the author meant in the text or by the text, that's humility, because you're not interested in your own views; you're interested in finding out what the author’s view is.
TP: There’s a great verse in Isaiah 66 that talks about the one whom God esteems being the one who “trembles at my word”, and in many ways, I think that's a description of what good reading really is. All good reading is humble, because it comes ‘trembling’ before the text to see what it’s saying to us. I'm aware, of course, that I come to the text with my own baggage and my own existing understandings and my own view of the world, but I read the text—any text—with an open ear to how it speaks to my own existing understandings.
PJ: And when I’m reading God's word, that humility is even more needed, because I'm reading God's Word in order to know and appreciate the goodness of what God says. So if I come to God's word still wanting to reject what God has said, to excuse myself, to twist what is said there, then I will never actually read the Bible properly. As Peter says, it is always possible to twist the word, but you do so to your own destruction. If you've got the Spirit of God within you, you'll be reading God's Word out of a desperation to hear God's voice, not wanting to change it, modify it, twist it, or adapt it to yourself.
TP: So you're saying that ‘interpretation’ is really just ‘reading’, and that it's possible to come to a set of words on a page and expect them to have a meaning that can be read and understood. Let’s talk more about the nuts and bolts of doing that. How can we be good readers?
PJ: Well, let’s start with words. Words do or do not have meanings depending on the context. The word ‘stump’ might have seven or eight different meanings that are common in the community of English speakers, but the word’s meaning will actually be found in the sentence and paragraph and book in which it occurs. For example, a book on cricket will probably utilise a different meaning for the word stump than a book on tree chopping.
TP: In particular, the context of its sentence shows what the words connote or mean in the linguistic community in which it is used.
PJ: Yes, ‘linguistic community' is a nice way of saying ‘social’—that there's a group of people who use this language. So what a dictionary does is describe how the word is used. The Australian dictionary will be slightly different to the English or American Dictionary, because Australians, Americans and English people use words slightly differently. There are other ‘societies’, too–our family may use particular words with particular references and meanings that those outside the family don't have. There are words like ‘atonement’ and ‘redemption’ which Christians have a very special meaning for, but which Hollywood movies–such as The Shawshank Redemption–use very differently.
TP: And so if we're reading the Bible, for example, and we want to know what the words meant at the time they were written, we’d find that out from dictionaries that describe what those words meant at that particular time in history, in the Graeco-Roman world, or in ancient Israel.
But words also really come to say something only really in a sentence. It's only by forming sentences and paragraphs that we say things with words.
PJ: Yes, because the basic unit of meaning is the sentence rather than the word itself. And so a word doesn't have a meaning apart from its social context, or apart from its sentence in which it occurs.
TP: And so as we read the Bible, we not only need to understand the meaning of the individual words–whether in its original language or in English or any other translation–but we also have to keep reading the sentences and the paragraphs in which they occur to see how those words are actually being used.
PJ: Yes, that's right. And different authors could use the words with subtly different meanings or use the one word to mean different things in different contexts. If I remember correctly, there's a commentary by FF Bruce on Romans in which he gives six different meanings of the word ‘law’ inside Romans. And each time you need to weigh up which connotation of the word law is being conveyed in this sentence as opposed to that.
TP: Even the same author in different places can use a word with the same basic meaning but to refer to different things. For example, the word ‘ekklesia’ means ‘assembly’ or ‘congregation’ or ‘group of people’. In Acts 19 it's referring to a non-Christian riotous assembly, whereas in 1 Corinthians it’s referring to an assembly of God’s people. The word still means the same thing—’assembly’, ‘mob’—but the particular assembly it is speaking about is different in each case.
PJ: We can make it sound like this is all something incredibly complicated to do, but it's what you're doing all the time. Even as children, it’s something we learn when our parents teach us to speak—because humans are incredibly clever, created by God in his image to use language like no other animal. You go home and talk to your children, and they understand exactly what you're saying.
TP: So we read in sentences. But there’s a bigger context too—of the paragraph and the chapter and the book.
PJ: Yes, the Bible has a broader context which we do need to understand, and we do this through theological abstraction (that is, through the truths and concepts that arise from the Bible’s teaching), and we also do this by knowing the big storyline—the big narrative that runs through the different books of the Bible recounting events over the span of more than 1000 years, with one book looking forward to another thing happening, which is then described in another book, and so on. And so any part of the Bible has the broader context of both theologically and historically, prophetically and biblically.
TP: We started this conversation by talking about the gospel, and the gospel as something that we read and understand through the words and sentences of the Bible. Let's use it as a case study. How do we understand ‘gospel’ in the Bible as a word and a concept?
PJ: Well, I think the first thing we need to do is ask: what does the word ‘gospel' mean? What is a ‘gospel'? Not what is the gospel, what is a gospel. In the social context of a dictionary of Graeco-Roman usages of the word, ‘gospel’ means ‘a declaration’. It's a big announcement of something important and that's often an event. And it's an announcement of something so important that it's going to affect and change the future, sometimes even in the activity of making the announcement.
So a recent ‘gospel’ in world history would be: ‘Kabul has fallen to the Taliban’. It's a very big piece of news which was announced through the media all around the world. It's sometimes good news; it's good news for the Taliban. But at the same time, it’s really bad news for all kinds of other people. Whether it's good or bad is not the issue—its importance and its impact is what makes it a ‘gospel’.
TP: What is the ‘gospel’ in the New Testament, particularly the one we read in the Gospels?
PJ: Well, it's all about Jesus, but it’s not enough to say the gospel is Jesus. It includes who he is, and what he's done. It’s got to do with his death and resurrection, but also how his death and resurrection appoints him to the right hand of God, as Lord and Saviour and King, as Judge of the living and the dead. We see this in our Bibles. When we look at how the apostles preached the gospel, they always mentioned Jesus, they always mentioned his resurrection, and they were always talking about him as the Lord and judge of the universe, and they were always calling upon people to respond by repentance and faith.
TP: If we come back to Two Ways to Live, you've just really described boxes four and five. Jesus dying and rising from the dead, to be the ruler and judge of the world, who offers forgiveness of sins and new life, and who will come again in glory. That's all there. So what are boxes 1-3 about if boxes 4-5 are really what the apostles went around proclaiming as their ‘gospel’? Why do we bother with those other three boxes?
PJ: Well, boxes 1-3 are about creation, sin and judgment. It is the context in order to understand boxes 4-5. In Acts 14 or Acts 1,7 when Paul is preaching to non-Jews, he always refers to the creation. When he is speaking to Jews, he doesn’t need to give that context, because they already know the Creator. But in the same way, when we're preaching the gospel today in the Australian context, we certainly need to include the Creator and sin, because if you don't have a concept of the creator, you don't really have a concept of sin. If you don't have a concept of sin, you don't really have a concept of judgment. And if you don't have those three things, Jesus' death on the cross doesn't actually make sense to you. So boxes 1-3 are the presenting of the context in order to understand the gospel, which are boxes 4-5. And then box 6 is the response to that gospel.
TP: It’s almost like boxes 1-3 are a summary of the Old Testament. It’s like the Old Testament is ‘the story so far’ and Jesus is the climax to it. But as we read the Bible, we come to realize that the Old Testament is much deeper and richer than that too. It’s the biblical, literary and linguistic context for the gospel that is finally proclaimed as.
PJ: Yes, if you only preach the gospel in its theological terms, it always depersonalizes Jesus—as if he is the product that God has used to bring about something. Whereas when you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, it's about what Jesus did. It's about who he was as a real man. And it doesn't spell out the real man in six pictures, in six boxes. It tells you where he went and who he spoke to.
TP: It's written as history, in other words—as something that God did in time. It's not just a set of ideas or principles. And so it only really makes sense with the history of Israel, with all that God has done for his people and all the concepts and categories he set up through that history to foreshadow what was going to happen when Jesus came.
PJ: That's why I want to say that the broader context is so important in Bible reading, because the gospel comes not just suddenly out of the blue. God prepared for over 1000 years for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, to give us the context to understand what is happening when Jesus comes. And you'll notice, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15, it says Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures, by which he means the Old Testament. God has given us the context by which to understand—or perhaps even control—the meaning of the events that are happening here. Mark's Gospel starts off: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…”
I was also thinking of 2 Timothy 2:8, where Paul describes his gospel as ‘Jesus Christ, risen for the dead, the offspring of David’. If you don't understand your Old Testament, you certainly won't understand that ‘offspring of David’ is one of the most important elements of Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament.
TP: He was the Christ, the Anointed One, in the line of David, come to sit on David's throne forever.
PJ: Yes, the very concept of the Christ is a concept of an anointed king. And the king we're looking for has to be descended from David, because that's the promise given by God to David, that his son will be the one who's King forever. And you might think, “Well, I don’t see ‘offspring of David’ in Two Ways to Live”.
TP: Within the framework of Two Ways to Live, that concept is certainly below the radar. But we do see the outlines of it—the whole presentation starts with the rule of God and the rule of humanity over God's world, and then our falling into sin and the judgment that comes upon us. So when Jesus comes, he comes as the perfect man to rule the world, as we were always meant to. And this echoes the biblical promise of the Messianic rule of David, which speaks of someone who might finally be the ruler of God's people and all the world, the ruler they were looking for, who would obediently live under God's rule, as even David didn't. And who will rule the world forever, as David didn't.
PJ: It’s all part of one unfolding plan. Genesis 1-11 sets up the universal character of God's creation and humanity, which from Genesis 12 onwards is selective down into one family, Israel, the family of Abraham. And that one family is the family by which the whole of humanity is going to be saved. So the blessing to Abraham is that through him, all the nations will be blessed. We don't see that till Jesus finally comes and has the gospel preached, as described in Luke 24. So you see, if you ignore the Abraham to Jesus element, you won't understand what Jesus is doing in reversing the sin and fall of Genesis 1-11.
TP: So we've looked at what a ‘gospel’ is—what the word means as well as its social context. We've looked at how the New Testament authors employ that word to describe a particular kind of gospel, the meaning of which they fill out as the Crucified King Jesus, risen as Lord of all. And we've seen how all this only really makes sense in the broader context of the theology and unfolding history of the Bible. And so I read and understand what the ‘gospel’ is by using the word’s definition according to its social and linguistic context, and by seeing what is actually being said about this ‘gospel’ in the sentences of the New Testament, and by locating these sentences within a ring of concentrically expanding contexts, reaching right back to the very beginning and the Old Testament.
And if that sounds complicated, it's really what we do all the time whenever we read anything. We situate words in sentences and paragraphs, and we see instinctively that those paragraphs fall within a newspaper article that I'm reading, which also has a headline, and is part of this newspaper, and comes after yesterday's newspaper, and refers to things that happened last week, and so on. We do this naturally all the time. It’s called reading. It’s just that sometimes we don't do it well when we come to the Bible.
PJ: Yes, it's weird. Have you read the newspaper today? Yes. Have you interpreted the newspaper today? What?!
We don't use the word ‘interpretation’ on anything other than the Bible. And why is that? Well, because I don't want to read it, that's why. I don't want to accept what it is plainly saying, I was in church last night. And there was a man who was asked to give testimony about how he became a Christian. He came from a fairly solid atheist position, but reached the point where he thought there had to be some meaning and purpose in life. And so he turned to his Bible, which he'd never read. He'd never been to church other than funerals and weddings. And so he read his Bible, and COVID came. And he kept reading his Bible, and watching some online church gatherings. He said, “I read the Bible twice, and when I came to Romans, that clinched the deal. I understood what was being said.” So here's a man with no kind of pressure, no background, and no church. He just read his Bible. But the gospel he came to understand is the same gospel that you and I understand because it's there in the Bible. Any person who humbly reads what's there will come to the same conclusion.
In reading the Bible, you can start in the Old Testament or New Testament; it doesn't matter how you do it, it's more important that you do it. If I was encouraging someone to start, I would say start with Jesus—start reading one of the Gospels, because you'll see where it's all going to, and then you can start going back to see the background that led up to it.
TP: It's as if you can't really read the Old Testament without knowing where it ends up. And you can't really read the New Testament without knowing where it came from. You’re bouncing back and forth between them all the time.
PJ: Yes, it's a feedback loop, or more like a spiral upwards. Every time I read my Old Testament, I understand the New Testament better. And every time I read the New Testament, I understand my Old Testament better. So bouncing back and forward between the two actually increases my knowledge of both of them.
TP: Do you think we should model this reading of Old and New Testaments in church?
PJ: Yes, definitely. To only read one testament all the time at church is not modelling a reading of the Bible in the way God means for it to be read. We do need to read both the Old and New Testaments every time.
TP: Well, there’s a challenge and an encouragement for your churches. Thanks for talking about reading in general and reading the Bible in particular. It’s seemingly simple and yet the more we dig into it, the richer the concept becomes—to read and understand what God's Word is saying.
Thanks for all the comments and questions that you keep sending in. Keep them coming (just hit reply to this email).
To read more about reading the Bible, check out Richard Chin’s marvellous little book, How to read the Bible better. It’s a short, wise, very helpful guide to get you into the Bible, and to make the most of your reading. The description says:
No matter how you feel about the world’s bestselling book, we can all use a guiding hand to help us make the most of our Bible reading. In this short, readable book, pastor and preacher Richard Chin offers you a step-by-step guide to better Bible reading: how to make sense of the Scriptures, how to avoid the most common pitfalls, and how to let God’s word shape your life.